Woman looking at a red and yellow painting by Mark Rothko
No. 15, by Mark Rothko, valued at $40 million. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Whether you are an abstract or a representational painter, painting is all about light. We do not see anything without light, and in the real world light is what gives things their visible form, shape, value, texture, and color. 

The way an artist uses light and conveys light says a lot about what is important to the artist and reveals who he or she is as an artist. Robert O'Hara, in the preface to his book on Robert Motherwell said:

"It is important to differentiate the light in different painters. The distinction is not always historical, nor is it always about source. It is in its actuality the most spiritual element technical only in so far as it requires means, painterly means, to appear at all. It is the summation of an artist's conviction and an artist's reality, the most revealing statement of his identity, and its emergence appears through form, color, and painterly technique as a pre conceptual quality rather than an effect." (1)

Here are five artists - Motherwell,  Caravaggio, Morandi, Matisse, and Rothko - from different places, times, and cultures who imbue their paintings with light in ways that are unique to their artistic vision.

Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) brought light to his paintings through the dualism of his monumental black ovoid forms set against a painted white plane in his Elegies to the Spanish Republic series for which he is most well-known.  His paintings followed the principle of Notan, with a balance of light and dark, of good and evil, of life and death, revealing the battling dualities of humankind. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was one of the major political world events of Motherwell's young adult years, and included the bombing of Guernica on April 26, 1937, which killed and injured thousands of innocent civilians, about which Pablo Picasso did his famous painting, Guernica.  The horrors and atrocities of the Spanish Civil War affected Motherwell all his life.


Caravaggio (1571-1610) created dramatic paintings that showed the volume and mass of the human form and the three-dimensional experience of space through the use of chiaroscuro, the strong contrast of light and dark. The effect of chiaroscuro is achieved by a single directional light source that shines intensely on the main subject, creating extreme contrasts between highlights and shadows that give the form a sense of solidity and weight.

Following on the heels of new discoveries during the Renaissance in areas of science and physics that explained the nature of light, space, and motion, Baroque artistswere passionate and excited about these new discoveries and explored them through their art. They were obsessed with space, and therefore created paintings representing actual three-dimensional space with scenes of high theatrical drama and human emotion intensified by light, as in Judith Beheading Holofernes,1598.

Read Sfumato, Chiaroscuro, and Tenebrism

Giorgio Morandi

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was one of the greatest modern Italian painters and masters of the still life genre. His still life subjects were everyday unremarkable bottles, pitchers, and boxes that he would  make even less specific by removing the labels and painting them in a flat matte neutral color. He would use these forms to set up his still life arrangements in unconventional ways: often in a line across the middle of the canvas, or clustered in the center, some objects "kissing" one another, almost touching, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

His compositions are much like the clusters of medieval buildings in the town of Bologna where he spent all of his life, and the light is much like the pervasive Italian light that washes over the town. Since Morandi worked and painted slowly and methodically, the light in his paintings is diffuse, as though time passes slowly and gently. Looking at a Morandi painting is like sitting on the porch on a hazy summer afternoon as dusk is settling in, enjoying the sound of crickets. 

In 1955, John Berger wrote about Morandi that "His pictures have the inconsequence of margin notes but they embody true observation. Light never convinces unless it has space to fill: Morandi’s subjects exist in space."  He continued, saying there is a "contemplation that lies behind them: a contemplation so exclusive and silent that one is convinced that nothing else except Morandi’s cherished light could possibly fall on the table or shelf—not even another speck of dust."(2) 

Watch Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life, The Phillips Collection (February 21-May 24, 2009

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French artist known for his use of color and draughtsmanship. His work is often identifiable by his use of bright color and arabesque, decorative curvilinear patterns. Early in his career he was one of the leaders of the Fauvist movement. Fauve in French means "wild beast," which the artists were so called for their use of bright wild expressionist colors.

Matisse continued using bright, saturated color even after the decline of the Fauvist movement in 1906, and strove to create works of serenity, joy, and light. He said, “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter - a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” The way to express that joy and serenity for Matisse was to generate light. In his words: “A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I've been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light.” (3) 

Matisse expressed light through bright saturated color and simultaneous contrast, juxtaposing complementary colors (opposite one another on the color wheel) to create a vibrancy and greater effect of one against the other. For example in the painting, Open Window, Collioure, 1905 there are orange masts on blue boats, and a bright red door frame against a green wall on one side, with the green reflected in the window of the door on the other side. The small specks of unpainted canvas left between the colors also create a sense of airiness and a shimmering light quality. 

Matisse enhanced the effect of light in Open Window by using reds, blues and greens, which are the additive primary colors (referring to light rather than pigment)  - the wavelengths of orange-red, blue-violet, and green that combine to make white light. (4) 

Matisse was always seeking light, both outer and inner light. In a catalogue for an exhibit of Matisse works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Matisse authority Pierre Schneider of Paris explained, "Matisse did not travel to see places, but to see light, to restore through a change of its quality, the freshness it had lost." Schneider also said, ``During the various stages of [Matisse's] career, what the painter called `inner light, mental, or moral light' and 'natural light, the one that comes from the outside, from the sky,' dominated in turn.... He adds (quoting Matisse's words), 'It is only after having enjoyed the light of the sun for a long time that I tried to express myself through the light of the spirit.'" (5)

Matisse thought of himself as a kind of Buddhist, and the expression of light and serenity were of utmost importance to him, to his art, and to his spirit. He said,“I don't know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I'm some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.” He also said, “A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I've been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light. ” (6)

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was an American Abstract Expressionist painter known primarily for his paintings of glowing pulsating fields of unbroken color. Many of his large-scale works have a radiating light that invite contemplation and meditation and convey a sense of the spiritual and transcendent. 

Rothko himself spoke of the spiritual meaning of his paintings. He said, "I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on - and the fact that lots of people break down and cry before my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them."(7)

The large rectangles, sometimes two, sometimes three, are of complementary or adjacent colors, such as Ochre and Red on Red, 1954 painted in quick brush strokes in thin layers of glazes either in oil or acrylic, with soft edges that seem to float or hover over the underlying layers of color. There is a luminosity to the paintings that comes from using colors of similar value in different saturations. 

Rothko's paintings are sometimes read as architecture, with the light inviting the viewer into the space. In fact, Rothko wanted viewers to stand up close to the paintings to feel a part of them, and to experience them in a visceral way to feel a sense of awe. By removing the figures that used to exist in his earlier paintings he succeeded in creating paintings of timeless abstraction that became more about light, space and the sublime.

See Mark Rothko: National Gallery of Art Slideshow 

Read The Painting That Sold For $46.5 Million At NY Sotheby’s Auction

Light is what painting is all about. How do you want the light in your paintings to represent your artistic vision? 

Look at light and admire its beauty. Close your eyes, and then look again: what you saw is no longer there; and what you will see later is not yet.—Leonardo da Vinci



1. O'Hara, Robert, Robert Motherwell, with selections from the artist's writings, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965, p. 18. 

2.The Editors of Art News, The Metaphysician of Bologna: John Berger on Giorgio Morandi, in 1955, http://www.artnews.com/2015/11/06/the-metaphysician-of-bologna-john-berger-on-giorgio-morandi-in-1955/, posted 11/06/15, 11:30 am.

3. Henri Matisse Quotes, http://www.henrimatisse.org/henri-matisse-quotes.jsp, 2011

4. National Gallery of Art, The Fauves, Henri Matisse,            https://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/fauve/window_3.shtm

5. Dabrowski, Magdalena,  Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mati/hd_mati.htm

6. Henri Matisse Quotes,  http://www.henrimatisse.org/henri-matisse-quotes.jsp, 2011

7. Carnegie Museum of Art, Yellow and Blue (Yellow, Blue on Orange) Mark Rothko (American, 1903-1970), http://www.cmoa.org/CollectionDetail.aspx?item=1017076